Thursday, July 23, 2009

This blog is now at

Friday, July 3, 2009

Who do we care about?

Humans exercise compassion regarding:

  • family more than anyone
  • people they know more than strangers
  • geographically close people more than distant people
  • Visible people more than not visible people
  • culturally similar people more than culturally different people
  • few people more than many people (even one person more than two people, in total, if I recall)
  • people who can't be helped by others more than people who aren't being helped by others (bystander effect)
  • causing and stopping death more than stopping and causing birth
  • people who exist already more than potential people
  • actions more than inactions
  • those suffering more than those without as much pleasure as they could have
  • people who will recover health or wealth with our help more than those whose suffering will merely be reduced
  • high status people more than low status people
  • big animals more than small animals
  • women more than men
  • children more than adults
  • cute things more than ugly things
  • the innocent more than the guilty
Our moral feelings are not concerned for others' wellbeing per se. They are very contingent. What's the pattern? An obvious contender is whether we can be rewarded or punished by the beneficiary of our 'compassion'. Distant, helpless, non-existent and low status people can't easily return the favour or punish. Inaction and shared blame are hard to punish, as everyone is responsible. There are some things that don't fit this, but most can be explained e.g. children are weak, but if they are ours we genetically benefit by caring and if they are not they probably have someone powerful caring about them for that reason. Got a better explanation?

I don't decide what to do by guessing the pattern behind my moral emotions and trying to follow it better. If you do, perhaps try to care only for the powerful. If you don't, notice that your moral feelings are probably fooling you into what's tantamount to murder.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Morality is subjective preference, but it can be objectively wrong

People are often unwilling to think of ethics as their own preferences, rather than demands from something more transcendent. For instance it's normal to claim that one really wants to make one choice, but it's only ethical to make the other. My feelings agree, but my thoughts don't. If I follow something I call ethics, that demonstrates that I want to. It's not a physical law. So what's the difference?

Just that. Ethics is a preference for fulfilling preferences attributed to some other source. Popular external sources of values include Gods, nature, other people, transcendent moral truth, group norms, and leaders. If I prefer for your house not to burn down I will turn on the hose. If I think it's moral to stop your house burning down I will turn off the hose if I find out that you want to burn it down to collect insurance money. I care about your values, not the house.

One demonstration that having an external source is important for ethics is the fact that invented ethical systems (such as, 'playing video games is virtuous') seem illegitimate and cheaty. Crazy seeming practices can be ordained by religion and culture, but if you decide independently that it's only ethical to eat cereal on Thursdays and most will feel you are missing the point and some marbles.

While ethics is a matter of choice then, it implies the existence of your preferred outside source of values. This means it can be wrong. The outside source of values might not exist, or might not have values. This is why evidence about evolution can influence whether a person likes gays marrying, despite it being an apparent value judgement.

This means moral intuitions aren't as useful as they seem for information about how to be moral. Gut reactions are handy for working out what you like, but if you find that you like serving someone else's purposes there is factual information about whether they exist or care to take into account. We have better ways to deal with facts than our emotional responses in most realms, so why not use the same here?

The only things that exist and care that I know of are other people and animals. Gods and transcendent values don't exist, and society as a whole and the environment don't care, as far as I know. So if I want to be ethical, preference utilitarianism (caring about other people's preferences) is my only option. Of course I could prefer not to be ethical at all. And I could prefer to follow what pass for other moral rules; being honest, protesting interference in the environment, keeping my dress long. But if these things benefit only my feeling of righteousness, I must admit they are no different to normal personal preferences. If you want to be ethical, these are probably not what you are looking for any more than 'it's virtuous to play video games' is.

Be your conformist, approval seeking, self

People recommend that one another 'be themselves' rather than being influenced by outside expectations and norms. Nobody suggests others should try harder to follow the crowd. They needn't anyway; we seem fairly motivated by impressing others and fitting in. Few seem interested in 'being themselves' in the sense of behaving as they would if nobody was ever watching. The 'individuality' we celebrate usually seems designed for observers. What do people do when there's only themselves to care? Fart louder and leave their dirty cups around. This striving for unadulterated selfhood is not praised. Yes, it seems in most cases you can get more approval if you tailor your actions to getting approval. So why do we so commonly offer this same advice, that we don't follow, and don't approve of any real manifestation of?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Explain explanations for choosing by choice

A popular explanation of why it's worse to seem stupid than lazy is that lazy seems like more of a choice, so not permanent. Similarly it seems more admired and desired to have innate artistic talent than to try hard despite being less naturally good. Being unable to stand by and let a tragedy occur ('I had no choice!') is more virtuous than making a calm, reasoned decision to avoid a tragedy.

On the other hand, people usually claim to prefer being liked for their personality over their looks. When asked they also relate it to their choice in the matter; it means more to be liked for something you 'had a say in'. People are also proud of achievements they work hard on and decisions they make, and less proud of winning the lottery and forced moves.

The influence of apparent choice on our emotions is opposite in these cases, yet we often use it in the explanation for both. Is percieved level of choice really relevant to anything? If so, why does it explain effects in opposite directions? If not, why do we think of it so soon when questioned on these things?

Friday, April 24, 2009

A puzzle

What do these things have in common? Nerves, emotions, morality, prices.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Obvious identity fail

Paul Graham points out something important: religion and politics are generally unfruitful topics of discussion because people have identities tied to them.

An implication:

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it's right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

This seems obvious. For one thing, if you are loyal to anything that incorporates a particular view of the world rather than to truth per se, you have to tend away from believing true things. 

Ramana Kumar says this is not obvious, and (after discussion of this and other topics) that I shouldn't care if things seem obvious, and should just point them out anyway, as they're often not, to him at least (so probably to most). This seems a good idea, except that a microsecond's introspection reveals that I really don't want to say obvious things. Why? Because my identity fondly includes a bit about saying not-obvious things. Bother. 

Is it dangerous here? A tiny bit, but I don't seem very compelled to change it. And nor, I doubt, would be many others with more important things. If you identify with being Left or Right more than being correct to begin with, what would make you want to give it up? 

Ramana suggests that if having an identity is inescapable but the specifics are flexible, then the best plan is perhaps to identify with some small set of things that impels you to kick a large set of other things out of your identity. 

What makes people identify with some things and use/believe/be associated with/consider probable/experience others without getting all funny about it anyway?

As a side note, I don't fully get the concept. I just notice it happens, including in my head sometimes, and that it seems pretty pertinent to people insisting on being wrong. If you can explain how it works or what it means, I'm curious.